THE ETHICS OF RISK AND INEQUALITY
Dr Tom Walker wasn’t always a philosopher. Originally he was an engineer.
‘I worked for ten years providing power lines across the north of Scotland. I was put in charge of a plan for dealing with oil spills, things like that, which got me thinking about questions of ethics, what was appropriate, what was fair, and how we should treat the local community.’
So he took what he thought would be a career break and did a degree in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. ‘But it turned out I enjoyed it more than I was expecting, so I stayed on and did a PhD.’
When he finished he joined the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele University, where most of his teaching was for medical professionals, dealing with questions of applied ethics. Now he is at Queen’s, leading a cross-disciplinary Pioneer Research Programme on Risk and Inequality.
The programme takes as its starting point the position that risks of many kinds:
Financial, environmental, health-related – pose the greatest threat levels to low income and socially disadvantaged groups. There are three themes in the programme – finance, environment and health.
On finance, Tom says, ‘This came out of the 2007-08 crisis. All the big institutions have risk managers – even the ones that collapsed. We’re looking at how they missed the risks that were there and what the impact of that is on different parts of the economy.
‘On the environment, we’re focused on climate change and renewable energy, two big global themes. With climate change we have problems like rising sea levels which tend to affect poorer countries and we want to know who the risks fall on. With renewable energy, we’re looking at availability and affordability, what it means in places like Africa and how that creates inequality as well. ‘With health, the issues are to do with the disproportionate effects of certain risk behaviours, such as smoking. Also, health inequalities are mapped very closely onto social and financial inequalities. We’re not treating them as separate things.
‘One of the biggest risks to health if you’re poor is the fact that you’re poor. So increasing financial inequality increases health inequality. On this we’re bringing together practitioners on the ground, such as from the Centre for Public Health, from the Schools of Law, Sociology and Politics.’
Will Brexit impact the programme ?
Tom says, ‘Sometimes I think that if we hadn’t already come up with this research programme, we would have had to create it just for Brexit. ‘This is going to open up a whole new strand of research. There are going to be questions about how responding to the risks coming out of Brexit are managed in a way that doesn’t exacerbate inequality. I think we’ll be looking at a lot of things that weren’t part of the original plan.
‘When something like Brexit happens, it alters our focus and as new risks develop, then we’ll try to be flexible and move into them. But we have a network in place so that we can look at Brexit from the perspective of Westminster, Dublin and Brussels, as well as Belfast.
‘With a lot of our research, our concern is with getting to the policymakers so Government is going to be the main target. We want to see policy change which tackles inequality. We want to see that when people devise policies to manage risk they take much more account of the effect on inequality and how the two are connected.
‘There are several well-established centres looking at risk and there are several well-established centres looking at inequality. But there’s nobody looking at how the two are connected. We’re the first that we know of anywhere in the world. That’s what makes this programme pioneering.’
Read more from our experts in The Centre for Study and Risk Inequality